The Metropolitan Museum's strong, focused exhibition highlighting uses of African masks in contemporary art would be a top contender for group show of the year if it were exhibited in a small gallery. Hung in the hallway leading into the Met's Modern wing, its twenty pieces by five artists run the risk of not being given the amount of time they merit, and the connections between them of not being discovered as rewardingly as they could be. But the location boasts one unique, powerful advantage. To get there from the museum's main entrance one passes through a set of vitrines full of masks from Sudan, and though I passed them indifferently en route to the new exhibition, I was compelled to linger with the East African displays as I left. Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask by Modern and Contemporary Artists from Three Continents
(through August 21) explores the enduring use of an early-20th century Modern art staple and how its value has changed from primitivist and postcolonial iconography to formal muse and back again.
Co-curators Alisa LaGamma and Yaëlle Biro select as their starting point Man Ray
's iconic 1926 photograph
of a female model posing with a small mask—a very different orientation from, say, a Picasso painting
of women with monstrous expressions. Alongside the Man Ray photo is a Baule
mask from Côte d'Ivoire that was displayed in Paris and published in one of the first books on the aesthetics of African art in the 1910s, and very closely resembles the one in the picture. From the start, then, the African mask is an artifact removed from its original ritual, performative contexts and the systems of belief articulated therein, and presented as an object for trade. Lynda Benglis
's three elongated, amphora-like glass sculptures were inspired by a likely inauthentic mask she bought from a street vendor outside the Whitney Museum. For Willie Cole
masks serve as vessels of displaced African identity assembled from household goods. Cole's Arcimboldo
-esque assemblages, like "Shine" (2007), a head made of black high-heeled shoes, activate masks' post-colonial resonances—that they evoke works by Brian Jungen
suggests similar experiences of hybrid identity. On the other hand, Benglis's interest is mostly formal; her glass sculptures' smooth, sloping forms are opaque to varying degrees, teasing with glimmers of the materials and colors inside—the most impressive, "Anacoco" (2010), seems solid black at first save a scar-like line looping across its surface, but up close glimmers of blue, green and purple emerge from the dark glass.
Meanwhile Calixte Dakpogan
and Romuald Hazoumé
reverse this flow of economic and cultural trade from Africa to Europe and America. Both Beninese artists use scraps of trash and found objects imported to Africa from the developed world. They transform rusted car parts, bits of plastic, smashed electronics and more, through bricolage, into signifiers of contemporary African identity that draw on historical cultural imagery. Several of Dakpogan's masks, like the heart-shaped "Woli" (2007) and the darkly comic "Papa Sodabi-The Drunk" (2002), feature tapes, CDs and floppy discs for eyes, suggesting that cultural heritage, no matter how exhaustively recorded and preserved, remains highly subjective. Dakpogan ties his masks' parts together with copper wire, creating a tension between the delicate assemblage and the rough objects it incorporates. Hazoumé's masks are comparatively simple, begun with plastic and metal jerrycans whose spouts serve as mouths, other facial features made from no more than a few extra objects. "Internet" (1997) consists of a metal can topped with multi-color strands of electrical wires; "Godomey" (1995) is slightly more elaborate, with a plastic can cut open, holes for its eyes and mouth, and jewelry-like beads and cigarette butts dangling from its chain.
In the Beninese sculptors' more rough-hewn pieces the African mask becomes re-politicized. Neither part of a broad formal lexicon (as in Benglis) nor a point of access for addressing African-American identity (as in Cole), Dakpogan and Hazoumé reappropriate this motif by tapping into both its historical associations as a link to pre-modern African cultural traditions and as an ideological prism through which to convey a contemporary condition of cultural impoverishment, economic suppression and social crisis. Near the centennial of its transformation from anthropological artifact to Modern art fetish object, the African mask continues to serve as a polysemic symbol for contemporary artists, especially for those closest to its origins.
(Images courtesy CAAC-The Pigozzi Collection; Metropolitan Museum of Art)